My favorite thing about traveling is experiencing different cultures. I didn’t realize when I set out to visit all 50 states that I would see so many different kinds of people living in different ways of life, but…that’s the beauty of the United States.
My southwestern road trip was no exception. Everything from seeing cacti growing naturally to standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon made me feel like I was in a different world. It could’ve been another country compared to where I grew up in New York or where I’ve lived for the past seven years in Tennessee.
I planned this trip with the goal to see as much as I possibly could in only one week. It was exhausting but exhilarating.
I hope you consider stealing my itinerary for your southwestern road trip!
Southwestern Road Trip Itinerary
- Day 1: Las Vegas, NV (Alexis Park Suites)
- Dinner at “Pies and Fries”
- The High Roller
- Day 2: Las Vegas, NV (Alexis Park Suites)
- Breakfast at “Hash House A Go Go”
- Stroll on the strip
- Neon Museum
- Springs Preserve Botanical Gardens
- Hoover Dam
- Dinner at Grand Canyon Brewing Company
- Day 3: Flagstaff, AZ (Best Western Pony Soldier)
- Breakfast at the Crown Railroad Cafe
- Grand Canyon
- Dinner at FLG Terroir Wine Bar & Bistro
- Day 4: Flagstaff, AZ (Best Western Pony Soldier)
- Breakfast at Wildflower Bread Company
- Barringer Meteor Crater
- Petrified Forest/Painted Desert
- Day 5: Chinle, AZ (Thunderbird Lodge)
- Breakfast at Junction Restaurant
- Canyon de Chelly
- 4 Corners
- Dinner at La Palzuela
- Day 6: Santa Fe, NM (Las Palomas)
- Morning horseback ride with Joaquin at “Vision Quest“
- Lunch at Thunderbird Cafe
- Plaza Shopping
- Meow Wolf
- Dinner at Blue Corn Café
- Day 7: Santa Fe, NM (Las Palomas)
- World Balloon – Hot Air Balloon Ride (Albuquerque – there are companies in Santa Fe but they only operate during certain times of the year.)
- Flight home
Day One: A Sober Night in Vegas
I’ve never been a huge fan of Vegas, or at least its image, but knew I needed to experience it at least once. I found the perfect way to do that by making it our starting city for this road trip.
Flying into Vegas from Nashville was very easy, and I’ve heard that it’s just as easy from other cities! We landed around 7 PM, so we didn’t have a lot of time to play with for our first night.
If you’re like my fiance and I and drunk gambling isn’t your scene, a great way to spend your first (or only) night in Vegas is to pick a nice restaurant and then visit the High Roller.
Since it was late and we were starving when we arrived, we opted for a quick stop into a place called “Pies and Fries.” They have delicious poutine and pretty good pizza, and it’s a small (and not crowded) place located just far enough away from the strip. I recommend it if you’re looking for something quick and cheap, otherwise, there are hundreds of great restaurants on the strip that you can try instead.
The High Roller is a fun way to spend your night. It’s a giant Ferris wheel that offers brilliant views of the city. You can even opt for a pod with a cocktail bar.
Day Two: Enjoying Beautiful Nevada
Millions of people flood the strip each year, but how many actually venture outside of the city of Las Vegas to see what else Nevada has to offer?
For our second day, we had about 8 hours to spend in the Vegas area before we needed to start driving towards our next destination.
We started by having a fantastic breakfast at Hash House A Go Go (highly recommend), located inside the Linq Casino. Then, we split our time between the Neon Museum and Springs Preserve Botanical Garden.
My one regret is that we didn’t save ourselves time to go to Red Rock Canyon and Seven Magic Mountains. I had too many things on my Vegas wish list and not enough time to get it all done. If I could do it again I would either fly in earlier or give myself an extra day to do those things.
That said, the Neon Museum and Springs Preserve were cool.
The Neon Museum is basically a graveyard for retired neon signs. It’s overpriced at $22 per person considering that it takes 20 minutes tops to walk through the whole thing, so I would not recommend it for large families on a budget. However, if you have the money to spend and the time to drive over there, it’s a very cool, unique experience and it can make for some great photos.
Springs Preserve is a beautiful botanical garden. It is set up like a zoo – you’ll follow a path through rock formations to get to the ticket window and then continue on, reading the signs in front of each “exhibit.” I recommend spending the extra few dollars to get into the butterfly habitat, and make sure that you stop by the gift shop. I don’t say that often, but there were some great items in there.
Both the museum and the preserve were great for us, but if you prefer something a bit more adventurous, check out Red Rock Canyon and the Seven Magic Mountains instead. Just keep in mind that the rest of this itinerary includes more red rock-esque hiking, so the museum and the preserve will provide something different and more laid back.
On our way out of Vegas, Flagstaff bound, we stopped at the Hoover Dam. It was one of the few “detours” in my life that was hardly a detour at all. The dam is right along the path from Vegas to Flagstaff.
We didn’t have as much time at the Hoover Dam as what I would’ve liked to spend there, but I’m still glad we stopped. After going through security (which was surprisingly tight – don’t bother stopping by if you’re on a hunting trip or otherwise have ammo in your car), we stopped at the overlook points and admired the views, and then drove all the way back through it. We did not have time to check out the museum or do any tours. However, the view was beautiful, and I’m grateful that we at least had the chance to see it and drive over it. Even if you don’t know much about the history of the Hoover Dam (you should, Google it), anyone can appreciate its beauty.
Pro Tip: On our way into Flagstaff from the Hoover Dam, we stopped in a small town outside of Flagstaff, called Williams, AZ. We found the Grand Canyon Brewing Company was a GREAT place to stop for dinner. You can enjoy a local brew and a burger and appreciate the log cabin-esque vibe that they have going on in the restaurant. They also have some great souvenirs.
Grand Canyon & Flagstaff, Day 3
Flagstaff is a hugely underrated city. Travelers like me can geek out over driving on Route 66 to get there (you can even stay at one of several hotels with an address on Rte. 66), science geeks can oooh and aaah over the Lowell Observatory (where Pluto was discovered), and families and adults alike can enjoy the quaint downtown area and the proximity to amazing hikes and national parks.
I recommend that anyone planning a trip to the Grand Canyon stays in Flagstaff for a few nights. There aren’t a large number of hotels closer to the canyon, and the ones that are can be quite pricey. Flagstaff is only an hour and a half’s drive from the canyon.
We got into Flagstaff late at night and started the next morning with a classic Route 66 diner breakfast. The Crown Railroad Cafe has a great menu and the breakfast burrito had me wishing we were staying in town longer! I still think about that burrito to this day…
My research had told me that we could either drive an hour and a half or so straight from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon, or we could take a small detour into Williams, AZ, first. The detour was worth it, because we were able to experience “Bearizona.”
As a conservationist, I was hesitant to pay for admission and to step into this zoo, but I’m glad we did. You will spend the first part of your visit driving through the wildlife park with your foot barely on the gas, taking in the elk, wolves, and bears that live wildly around you.
It’s a way for people to get safely closer to these animals than they ever would otherwise – just make sure to keep your windows up! You don’t need more than two hours at Bearizona, so it’s a good place to either stop on your way to Flagstaff to break up your driving or at some other point during your Grand Canyon vacation. When we left Bearizona, we headed straight into the Grand Canyon National Park.
Grand Canyon South Rim
The Grand Canyon National Park and Village can be either amazing or disappointing, depending on how you look at it. It’s amazing because of its size and the number of gift shops and lodging options, but it’s disappointing for the same reason. The park is way too beautiful for it to be so infiltrated with parking lots and buses.
I felt incredibly overwhelmed by the crowds and the tourist traps very quickly. However, all of the crowds and the noise could not take away from the moment where I stepped onto the rim trail and looked down into the canyon. Pictures simply cannot do justice to the Grand Canyon. Neither can words, so I hope some of my pictures can at least spark your imagination
Lowell Observatory After Hours
After an exhausting day at the Canyon, we relaxed in our hotel room for a bit before heading off for wine and cheese at “FLG Terroir Wine Bar and Bistro.” It’s an adorable top-floor bistro in downtown Flagstaff where the wine is great, the food is ok, and the view is amazing. They have board games available for you to use and they have some homemade sodas on the menu – lots of interesting things happening there.
After dinner, we still had a little bit of time to make it to Lowell Observatory for their after-hours event. I don’t have any photos of that, because, well, it was pitch black. Their “Telescope After Hours” event runs from March through June and from September through October, from 11 PM to 12 AM on Thursday through Saturday. It’s a very limited experience, so if you’re in town for it, don’t miss it!
The observatory is great during the day, I’m sure, but there’s nothing like getting to peek through some of those insane, NASA-quality telescopes with huge histories. You’ll get to look through telescopes that astronomers actually used to make grand discoveries many years ago (like Pluto!). Guides will be there to help you figure out what you’re looking at. It’s great for families, spring breakers, and everyone in between. Combined with our dinner at the wine bar, it created a beautiful, romantic evening for us!
This was a looooong day for us, and I’d definitely recommend spending more time at the Canyon if you can…but you wouldn’t want to miss this other stuff, too. In reality, this trip needed to be longer.
Flagstaff, Day 4
I have to admit that I didn’t think anything on our trip would top the Grand Canyon, and I expected the fourth day to be the least eventful, but I might have enjoyed it even more than the canyon!
Barringer Meteor Crater
We started our morning with a quick breakfast at “Wildflower Bread Company,” which was basically the local version of Panera, and then we drove about 40 minutes to the Meteor Crater Natural Landmark (conveniently along the way to the Petrified Forrest, by the way). The Barringer crater is the result of a meteor that hit the Arizona desert over 50,000 years ago and is the most preserved meteor impact site on Earth! The landmark is absolutely worth the slight detour.
If you have more time, you can opt to take a guided tour where you walk all around the crater with a guide. Otherwise, you can step outside, climb (a lot of) stairs to get a great view of the crater, and then wander through the indoor museum. The museum is much bigger than I thought it would be, considering that this place is in the middle of nowhere.
Petrified Forest and Painted Desert
After our pit stop at the crater, it was about an hour and 15 minutes to our next stop, the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert. The biggest advice I can give you is to make sure you ENTER THE FOREST ON THE CORRECT SIDE! Despite having read blog after blog about the Petrified Forest and hearing this same advice, we still accidentally drove to the far end of the forest and ended up backtracking. We didn’t lose a lot of time this way, probably only a half hour or so, but given the timeline of our road trip, it was annoying. Try entering “Rainbow Forest Museum” in your GPS to make sure you enter at the “bottom” of the park instead of heading to the Petrified Forest Visitor’s Center and entering the park at the “top.”
What I love about the Petrified Forest is that while it is set up for tourists, the roadways do not take away from its natural beauty. This is probably partially because it is less popular than the Grand Canyon and is much less crowded.
No matter which way you enter the park, you’ll drive slowly through the winding roads and pull off at various viewpoints. You’ll see beautiful desert hills that look as if they’ve been painted bright oranges, yellows, and even blues in certain parts of the park.
My favorite part that I advise you to not miss is the Blue Mesa trail. Here you’ll park and hike a mile through the “painted” blue mountains. This hike, however, is probably not ideal for families with small children. It was quite steep at certain parts and quite frankly a little scary! You don’t need to be an advanced hiker, you just need to be steady on your feet.
I also recommend that you don’t skip over the petrified wood, which is mostly at the bottom half of the park towards the Rainbow Forest (which sounds like something out of Dora the Explorer but is a very real thing). You’ll see signs explaining how the trees fell in the forest thousands of years ago and have over time been petrified (basically fossilized) and crystallized into quartz.
Note: Give yourself at least three hours to spend at the Petrified Forest. It takes an hour to drive through it without stopping, and you’re going to want to stop. You’ll need at least one full day if you plan on hiking.
Chinle, Day 5
After finally pulling ourselves away from the Petrified Forest, we headed off to our next stop: Chinle, AZ. It was a beautiful drive through several Native American towns leading into the Navajo Reservation, the largest Native American reservation in the country (over 17,000 acres)! We got in pretty late and most things were closed, so we grabbed some McDonald’s and checked into the Thunderbird Lodge.
The Thunderbird Lodge is a must for your stay in Chinle. You can stay at one of the few chain hotels that are also in the area, but the Thunderbird will help you fully immerse yourself in the experience. The lodge also offers their own tours of Canyon de Chelly, the main attraction in the area…which brings me to my number one tip for Chinle. Give yourself at least a full day to enjoy it!
We arrived at our hotel late at night and needed to leave by 2 PM the next day to avoid putting a damper in the rest of our itinerary. We realized once we saw how great the hotel’s ATV tour could’ve been and how much there is to see at Canyon de Chelly that you need a full day in the canyon.
Stop for breakfast at the Junction Restaurant, located at the Best Western. I recommend the “White House Overlook” with green chile, which is basically a Navajo breakfast burrito. It’s probably not the healthiest option on the menu, but it sure is delicious.
Canyon de Chelly
Canyon de Chelly is a bit different from the National Parks. It’s classified as a national monument and is the only national “park” that has permanent residents inside it. This is because it is inside the Navajo reservation. It’s also why, even though they aren’t necessarily supposed to do this, you’ll see several Navajo people trying to sell “authentic” Native American goods from the backs of their cars. They sell Navajo sand paintings, pottery, jewelry, and more and while some may be genuinely authentic and hand made, many of them are unfortunately not – so be careful!
The canyon gift shop can provide information based on how much time you have. We picked up a brochure that told us what we should see if we had an hour, two, three, or all day, etc.
The Canyon de Chelly experience is much like the Petrified Forest experience. You’ll drive through the winding roads and pull off at various spots for beautiful views and mini hikes. The South Rim is the longer of the two rim drives and has the most pull-offs, so if you are short on time like we were, I’d recommend you start there. However, we got some AMAZING pictures and were blown away by the first stop on the North Rim trail, Ledge Ruin Overlook. Try to stop there if you have the time.
Is the Four Corners Monument Worth It?
Here’s where day five started to get exhausting. After leaving Canyon de Chelly, we drove two hours north and quite out of our way to the Four Corners Monument. If you’re following our itinerary and you don’t care about doing things “just to say you did,” then do yourself a favor and skip this!
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t nerd out over it a little. My goal is to spend quality time in all 50 states and I was able to stand on four of them at once! However, there were not real bathrooms (only a makeshift port-o-potty with a broken door), there were people standing in the background of my photo, there were locals trying to sell “authentic” goods again, and from what I’ve heard, the spot isn’t even technically the exact four corners spot.
The main reason I regret taking the time to drive up to 4 corners is that we were already on a tight schedule and it took us two longers longer than it otherwise would have to get to Santa Fe. However, I guess it’s one of those things that you only do once anyway, and when was I going to have that opportunity again?
My regrets were instantly forgotten, anyway, when we pulled into our boutique hotel in Santa Fe, called Las Palomas. It was so beautiful and peaceful, I knew instantly that the rest of our trip was going to be wonderful, relaxing, and a perfect finale to our amazing adventure.
Santa Fe, Day 6
The Las Palomas boutique hotel was exactly where we needed to be after two days of driving. The rooms are unique and beautiful, and felt safe. The breakfast in the morning was pretty good for a boutique hotel. The service was spectacular (as were the free cookies we got).
We checked in, relaxed for a few minutes, then walked into downtown Santa Fe (easy and safe 10-minute walk). We put our name on the list at La Plazuela at La Fonda, a fantastic and unique hotel inside the Plaza Hotel, and wandered around town until it was our turn.
Unfortunately, many of the shops in downtown Santa Fe do close early – but it’s a great little town to wander around and window shop in nonetheless.
I’ll never forget how nice the people were in Santa Fe. Even the homeless people were cracking jokes with us. There were only a couple, so don’t let that worry you. They were never pushy about asking for money and never made me feel unsafe.
Santa Fe is one of those cities that I cannot WAIT to go back to! I honestly don’t find many of those cities because I’m always itching to go somewhere new. I always think, “why go there again when there are so many things we haven’t seen?” But Santa Fe? I can’t wait to be there again!
Santa Fe, Day 7
Since this was day seven of a very long road trip, we were exhausted. There’s a lot of great hiking and beautiful things to do in Santa Fe, but we choose a slightly milder adventure. After a slow morning, we took our first-ever horseback ride with Joaquin at Visionquest Horseback Riding. I HIGHLY recommend this because Joaquin was a great guide and because Santa Fe is an amazing place for a horseback ride.
Visionquest Horseback Riding
My fiance’s horse, Cheyenne, was more of an alpha horse. He followed Joaquin and his horse very easily and kept a steady pace. I rode Cherokee, a younger horse who (at least at the time, maybe he’s learned better) was easily distracted by the beautiful scenery around us. It was difficult as a first time rider because I was scared to be too forceful with such a large animal, but he needed guidance – otherwise, he would fall behind and then trot to catch back up – and you don’t want to be trotting on a horse within 3 minutes of your first time being on a horse. So, that was terrifying. Maybe ask to not ride Cherokee if it’s your first time.
I’m not entirely sure how to describe Meow Wolf to you other than it’s a unique experience. They’ve been in Santa Fe since 2016 and are soon launching in Vegas and Denver.
It’s an interactive art exhibit of sorts. When you first walk in, you are introduced to the beginnings of a mystery that you are invited to solve. There are clues hidden all throughout the place. I don’t want to give it away…but picture the wildest possible “funhouse” where every room makes you feel like you walked into someone else’s dream. The rooms are truly art…so even if you don’t feel like solving a mystery, you can walk through and admire the weirdness.
Meow Wolf is insanely popular, especially on weekends and during school breaks. We had to wait in line for a few hours just to get in. By the time we got in, we only had an hour until the place closed down (needless to say, we didn’t solve the mystery). It was also so crowded that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have. We happened to be there during what was spring break for a lot of students, though, so stay away from the month of March.
Downtown Santa Fe Plaza
For our last meal in Santa Fe, we dined out on the balcony overlooking the plaza at the Thunderbird.
I fell in love with the plaza pretty quickly, and we couldn’t stop going back. There are restaurants and other places to see around Santa Fe, but we had almost every single meal at the plaza.
We weaved in and out of the shops every day, and even checked out the “Palace of the Governors.” Outside of this historic building, Native Americans who are licensed (to guarantee authentic goods) line the streets to sell homemade jewelry, pottery, and other traditional goods. We didn’t buy anything…mostly because it was the end of our trip and our suitcases were already bursting…but I’d recommend at least walking through it once during your stay.
Heading Home, Day 8: The Drive From Hell
The end of our trip was a bit of a disaster. First, our very last excursion, a hot air balloon ride in Albuquerque, was cancelled due to high winds. That didn’t even compare to what happened next.
I’ll tell you this – FLY OUT OF ALBUQUERQUE, NOT SANTA FE, if you can help it. I did not realize that the Santa Fe airport is barely even a regional airport (pictured above). You can only fly United or American, and you can only fly direct to Dallas, Denver, or Phoenix – that’s it. Two gates. One shady security line. Extremely outdated building.
I have to tell you, this trip was AMAZING – but we had pets to feed and we were exhausted. So, when we found out that our flight had been canceled due to a plane defect, and the next available flight wasn’t until the morning, we went into full-on panic mode. There were no rental cars available, and we didn’t want to pay for another night in the hotel (plus, we really needed to feed our cats and pick up our dogs)!
It was already late in the afternoon at this point, and we were finally able to get a shuttle from the Santa Fe airport to the Albequerque airport, where we were NOT able to find a flight that made sense, but we WERE able to rent an overpriced Rav-4 to drive back to Nashville (1,211 miles, minimum 18 hours). Was this a dumb choice over grabbing the next flight out in the morning? Probably.
We started driving as soon as we could, but by the time we were in the car, it was pretty late. We only made it to the Texas border (a few hours) before we were both falling asleep and needed to find a hotel. So, yes…after all that stress about not wanting to stay in Santa Fe another night due to hotel costs and wanting to get home, we ended up paying for a hotel anyway (and then only spending about five hours in that hotel room). We slept for five hours, took fast showers to wake ourselves up, and hit the road again.
That drive is spooky and I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s nice because it’s a straight shot to Nashville – you just need to stay on I-40 – but you could drive for a good 20 miles or more without seeing a gas station. We filled up every time we found one, just to be safe.
We finally rolled into Nashville sometime around 9 PM (more than 24 hours after we found out our flight was canceled), returned our car, got an Uber home, and then had to pick up our dogs. The next morning, we had to show up to work on time. What a mess.
Clearly, we (read: I) did not handle our stress in the situation well and made a poor decision, but at least we got a somewhat interesting story out of it.
Regardless of the way it ended, our itinerary was nearly perfect, and I’m glad I took the time to plan this trip out. Spontaneity is great, but when you only have a week to spend in such beautiful places, you have to do a bit of research to make it work.
Ready for your trip to the American southwest? Try out my itinerary and let me know what you think!